‘Hobo scientist’ presses for truth in journals
Etienne LeBel calls himself the hobo scientist and no wonder: He’s set aside ambitions of becoming a well-paid professor to reveal the secrets of senior scientists and the journals that publish their work.
“I’ve gotten hate mail, basically, from senior colleagues,” says the 33-yearold research associate at the University of Western Ontario.
As a PhD candidate at Western in 2010, LeBel was already uneasy about some psychological research he had read, when he saw the study that set him down the path of rebellion: An Ivy League professor claimed ESP was real and that college students could predict random events.
The study by Cornell University professor Daryl Bem, published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was headline news, but other scientists reacted with scorn. They later replicated Bem’s methods and found no evidence of psychic powers.
Last week, a joint effort by 270 researchers including LeBel fired a broadside at the field of psychological research. The team replicated experiments used to produce 100 studies in leading journals and fewer than half produced the evidence the authors had claimed — a finding published in the world-leading journal Science and reported in headlines around the world.
A point person for the so-called Reproducibility Project praised LeBel as a Canadian trailblazer.
“He is more than talk, he gets stuff done,” said Brian Nosek, who started and leads the Center for Open Science based in Charlottesville, Virginia
On his website psychdisclosure.org, LeBel asks scientists to reveal all evidence and methods and not just what is published in journals. Though his website has triggered some hate mail, last year the journal Psychology Science increased reporting standards and cited LeBel’s work as a reason.
He has also created a second website, Curatescience. org, where scientists are encouraged to publish replication studies and link them to the originals.
That latest effort has led to demand for LeBel by other maverick academics at leading universities in Europe and the United States — he’s leaving Sept. 12 for a threemonth tour that will include Harvard and Cambridge.
His work has also impressed his key ally at Western, Lorne Campbell, a professor in whose lab LeB el works. Scientists should be much more open about their work, and their studies should be subjected to replication, said Campbell, who has done replication studies himself.